Zen first entered the United States and other parts of the West predominantly through Japan, so it's not surprising that Japanese culture has strongly influenced our ideas of Zen from the beginning. An interesting development over the last few decades has been the introduction of Korean Zen and Tibetan Buddhism - each of which also have uniquely different belief structures, ideologies, and practices.
It's not surprising that Western Buddhism is undergoing a tremendous identity crisis, and that, in fact, the term Buddhism, can have hugely different meanings to a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism than, say, to a Japanese-lineage Zen practitioner or a purely Chinese-lineage Chan practitioner. Areas of differentiation between the numerous flavors of Buddhism include the idea of reincarnation, sutras, koan practices, vegetarianism, marriage, ecclesiastic hierarchical structure, as well as various superstitions and myths. The list of variances between them is endless, as would be expected when similar religions with no common "bible" have developed independently for thousands of years in vastly different cultures. In fact, nobody knows what the Buddha actually taught - nothing was written down until many generations after his death. (The only thing all Buddhists around the world seem to agree upon unquestioningly as originating from Shakyamuni Buddha are the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path).
To add to the confusion and chaos, the wide range of interpretations of Buddhist terminology from one sect to another has lead to infighting between Buddhist groups, among teachers, and between sangha members. Frequent scandals involving misuse of power and authority through exploitation of congregations has cast a bitter shadow on Zen Buddhism and many of its representative institutions in the West. And, while there's no debate here over which "path" is the best -- they are all great if approached with the right attitude -- the simple fact that there are so many different presentations of the same thing has had the effect of obfuscating rather than clarifying Zen for many.The challenge we face is how to keep what's good of the Chan path, while adapting another culture's ways of thinking and doing things in such a way that we don't undergo a psychological rift that can only serve to sever us from that Path. In a Western culture that emphasizes individualism over collectivism, as well as scientific approaches to knowledge over intuitive ones, we face obvious challenges when we try to integrate ideas and methodologies from Eastern cultures. Fortunately, social and cultural aspects of the institution of Buddhism are not fundamental, or even required, ingredients of Zen.
The Chan Sect: Chan has historically set itself apart from mainstream, orthodox, Buddhism, but it has not until recently rejected the moral and ethical foundations historically considered prerequisites for Chan practice. Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud), considered the greatest Chan master of the 20th century, taught that before one is ready to begin Chan one must be morally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared: "There are four prerequisites concerning methods of practice," he said: "deep faith in the law of cause and consequence; strict observance of precepts; immovable faith; and choosing a method of practice." With these things taken care of, we are ready to tread the ancient Buddhist mystical path of Chan:
While D.T. Suzuki was tremendously influential bringing Zen into popular western culture, his approach to Zen was strongly academic and his tendency was to view Zen as it's own unique "thing," distinct, independent, and isolated from it's religious, Mahayana, heritage. Whether or not this was a new twist in the history of Chan, successive teachers from various sects have perpetuated this Zen "isolationism". In addition, somewhere along the timeline, the Noble Eightfold Path lost its significance as a guide for practitioners to help them cultivate moral and ethical lives. Recently the extreme emphasis on "following the five precepts" has effectively substituted a simplistic ethical code of conduct for the complete Eightfold Path (which includes this ethical code). Thus, instead of regimens based on the more challenging but meaningful disciplines of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action (where we have the precepts), Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, we are left with the false impression that if we simply "don't kill, don't steel, don't engage in illicit sexual activities, don't lie, and don't use drugs" that we'll be riding the path to Nirvana. Somewhere we forgot that abiding by the precepts is merely a prerequisite for Chan, not actual Chan practice.
Zen in Transition: Japanese-lineage Zen groups have had a good amount of time to "test the waters" of American culture through numerous teachers and their congregations, yet a huge number of these groups have suffered greatly due to inherent incompatibilities between an alien culture forced upon an unprepared Western Mind. These incompatibilities may themselves account for much of the contemporary Zen isolationist paradigm.
Few people have done a finer job of identifying the numerous troubles Western Zen institutions have dealt with than Stuart Lachs. With over 40 years of Zen training under numerous teachers in the US, he has been witness to many fiascos. Principally, he has noted widespread misuse of power by representative teachers and an underlying alienation of teachers and students from their own culture. The many stories I've heard from students and read in books and articles from authors such as Mr. Lachs and Michael Downing (c.f. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center) suggest that the terminology associated with Zen is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and misappropriated by teachers and practitioners alike, either intentionally or unintentionally. Such misuse of Zen's language has had the effect of leading individuals astray and has had a further deleterious effect on Zen Buddhism in general.
D.T. Suzuki, Stuart Lachs, Carl Jung, Hsu Yun and many others have made similar comments that we must not ignore: for Zen Buddhism to flourish in the West, adaptive changes must be made that allow a mutual embracing of our culture with the essence of Zen. This has been the natural course of Buddhism for nearly two thousand years as it has migrated from one country to another, so there are no new ideas here. There is no reason for us to reject our own sensibilities, our own cultural identity, for that of another that is alien to us by way of its own unique heritage and cultural history.Stuart Lachs has identified where many of the dominant problems lay and has touched on a few ideas for solutions; implementing solutions, however, is the responsibility of the Zen institutions and their representatives. Until the dominant voices of Western Zen recognize the need for change, change will be tediously slow and the challenges for Western students will continue and grow.
Keeping and open mind: We Zen practitioners strive for an "objective eye" - to recognize things as they are (bhutatathata) rather than as we think or feel they are. Yet we have traditionally shunned listening to the academicians, theologians, and other researchers who have studied Buddhism from an historical, psychological, or religious viewpoint. "What could they know of Self Knowledge?" we ask arrogantly. We ignore the fact that many of these individuals are themselves long-time practicing Zen Buddhists. We might also observe that wisdom is not the exclusive domain of Zen Buddhists!
For us to intentionally turn a blind eye to any form of knowledge not only limits our understanding of the world in areas that could be vital to helping other people discover the Dharma, it also isolates us from our own culture and from society at large. Any psychologist will attest to the psychological damage this estrangement can cause an individual. We may also reflect on the Buddha's first step on his Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding. To understand something clearly, we must be open and receptive to information about that thing from every direction. And we must drop our own beliefs and opinions in order to attain that receptive mind. Understanding dissipates fear, removes ignorance, and enhances wisdom. It also helps us solve a lot of real-world problems.
Chinese Chan: While Japanese-style Zen schools have been here in the West for many decades, Chinese Buddhism has been here mostly in temples that serve ethnic populations of Chinese immigrants. This has produced inherent barriers for Westerners - predominantly in the areas of language and custom. It's not surprising that most of the problems we've seen in Zen temples have arisen in the Japanese Schools, for these are still the schools that dominate the Western Zen landscape. Proportionally, however, Chinese and Korean Zen Buddhist sects have also had their share of problems.